Leading a group of ukulele players to play and sing together in front of an audience is quite different from 1) leading a group with whom you’ve been rehearsing for awhile, 2) leading a group without a separate audience listening, and 3) playing in the group as a member and not as a leader of the group. This morning I had the first time experience of leading my West London ukulele group in an outdoor performance at a charity event in Southall. It was a last minute invitation to lead, confirmed only this morning. I didn’t have time to think but made plenty of assumptions.
What did I learn?
Don’t assume everyone knows the songs you’re going to do unless you’ve rehearsed with the group for the gig. I assumed everyone knew the 74 songs from our songbook “Summer of HUG 2017” as the “book” was released last year when we boarded the hired coach for our day trip to West Wittering in the Southern English coast. Just because it exists doesn’t mean that it is known. Not all songs have received the same amount of attention and practice.
Always select the songs you will be doing beforehand. Don’t make selections last minute. Instead of choosing the songs at home, I waited until we had arrived at the outdoor venue, after a pleasant cycle ride along the river Brent Canal. During the ten minutes of setting up, I told everyone that I’d follow the book from the beginning to the end (alphabetically). I gave the titles of the first three songs and then said that I’d decide as we went along. In doing so, I made many assumptions — that the participants knew the songs well and that I also knew them equally well.
Practice the songs you’ve chosen. Practising to lead is different from practising in a group to follow a leader or play and sing along with others in the group. Although I knew all ten songs for the thirty-minute set, I had not practised them in awhile. This illusion of familiarity produced an over confidence bias, for I assumed I could sightread and sight sing. Without practising beforehand, I didn’t know if the keys were in my optimal voice range, a requirement for leading the group. Without a microphone and amplification of my ukulele, it’s hard to hear me, especially outdoors.
Ensure what you will do is written in the song sheet. Through repetition, the group members know how many times to sing the last chorus, which lines to be repeated, and how it’s supposed to end. These instructions are not always written into the ukulele song sheet. My first mistake was to play and sing only according to what’s written. This may not always be what has been practised. In “Bad Moon Rising” the last line “There’s a bad moon on the rise” is repeated three times but there’s no instruction to do so written on the sheet. I ended as written, while everyone else kept singing and playing.
Look out for exceptional or tricky spots in the song sheet. Before playing, always check the song sheet to prevent surprises. In the second song, “Bring Me Sunshine” there’s an optional chord of B flat specified before the word sweet towards the end. I got stuck on that and missed a powerful ending of togetherness. Surprises throw you off course. Practising beforehand will prepare you from surprises you can’t handle.
The songs you love and know well may not be what the group is comfortable with. I thought Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” would be an easy number, for another gal and I had sung that at a porchfest (porch festival) in Brookline, Boston a few months ago. Not so here in London. Many songs in the book were not used that often. The la la la endings threw us off.
Do not lead a song that is not in your optimal, comfortable voice range, no matter how well you know the song. I had led my group in Boston on John Denver’s most famous song “Take Me Home Country Roads” this past spring. As it was our group’s first public gig, I was extra vigilant. I knew the optimal key for my voice was C major. However, the version in our HUG songbook was in G major. Normally, in a group, I’d just harmonise. As the leader, I needed to sing the melody line loudly. To sing the melody, I had to switch registers. Singing very low meant singing softly.
Resist choosing songs you really love and give into songs that are “sure things” to group members. By sure thing, I mean songs that members can confidently do well. The lesson of “Cecilia” taught me to ask other ukulele players before choosing for the entire group. As a result, we skipped my choices of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and landed on ABBA’s “I Have a Dream.” It’s a three chord song, and the only three-chord song of ABBA. I assumed it would be easy for the group. However, as it was not a song that was often sung in our ukulele jam sessions, they were not as confident singing it as they could have been. This is a clear example of ethnocentrism: just because I know it doesn’t mean others do, too. The accompaniment could have been sharpened to maintain the tempo and prevent the song from drifting. I asked the audience if they’ve seen the film “Mamma Mia II: Here We Go Again.” No one showed the faintest recognition or interest.
Choose songs that are “sure things.” There are songs you know, and there are songs you REALLY know. When you are giving a live performance, it’s best to stick to songs everyone REALLY knows. There are no uncertainties. No guess work. Everyone performs to his or her best ability with the greatest confidence. It’s a sure thing.
As a sightreader and nonconformist who supports the underdog, I often choose the road not taken. I am so accustomed to going where no one else has gone before that I forget the risks of the unknown and the less certain. The songs that are “sure things” are sung in nearly every performance, sometimes more than once in the case of the Hanwell Carnaval parade. I find myself straying from the “sure thing” to avoid boredom and resentment.
It’s not enough to choose songs that are “sure things” — YOU have to know it, too. I love singing “Hi Ho Silver Lining” which is a crowd pleaser. However, the instrumental section towards the end confused me. Thus the ending crumbled.
Go for the sure thing that you know. I gave into “Jolene” which I knew we’d execute flawlessly because we had sung it so many times.
Consider requests carefully. At the beginning, the bass player suggested “Blue Suede Shoes” and pointed to his blue suede shoes. I quickly declined his request, arguing that we didn’t have a harmonica player. Towards the end, we did two requests of “Lady Madonna” and “Sunny Afternoon”.
Don’t exceed your given time. I have attended concerts of musicians who were so eager to play and share their music that they exceeded their allotted time. Unless there is an encore, don’t give away your time and music for free. As a rule of thumb, program ten songs in a thirty-minute period. By the time we finished the last and tenth one, we had exceeded ours by seven minutes. I could tell we could and wanted to play more, as I had felt many times in our gigs, but I was firm about ending on time.
End the gig with a bang. Just as we chose a “sure thing” to start with, I wanted to end with a song that we performers and the audience all knew. Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” worked very well, including an a capella section.
Keep a steady tempo. Without firm leadership, there is a tendency for a group to speed up. Similarly, it’s easy to sing flat over time. The leader has the responsibility of keeping time and pitch.
Lead into a song by an introduction, playing the same chord until everyone is ready, counting, being the first to sing and play. There are many ways to lead everyone to play and sing. It varies with each song.
Determine how long to play the last chord between verses and choruses. Not all song sheets specify how many times to play the last chord before going into the next verse. Unless you’ve practised it sufficiently to intuitively know, you may guess it wrong. Here is where group play by ear comes in. You really have to listen to others and hear when everyone is ready to start the new verse.
End together. There is something very powerful when everyone ends together on the same chord, thereafter no further sound, no one trailing behind. Besides ending on one single strum on the final chord, there are numerous other ways to end a song. Before you begin the song, you should know how it will end.
Like performing, leading requires practice. In our Hanwell Ukulele Group, we have a custom of getting different people to lead the group in our regular weekly jam sessions. Not only does it give the opportunity to practice leading and develop new leaders, we also get to sing different kinds of songs and enlarge our repertoire, for each leader has his or her own preferences.
Who performed today (13):
Anne, Lynn, Belinda, Robyn, Patrick, John, Ralph, Jill, Hong, Sherry, Sheila, Paul, Jen (guest violin)
Songs in order played / sung:
- Bad Moon Rising
- Bring Me Sunshine
- Country Roads
- I Have a Dream
- Hi Ho Silver Lining
- Lady Madonna
- Sunny Afternoon